Outcry forces Home Office to allow Afghan youth orchestra to go on England tour

<span>Ahmad Sarmast speaking to members of the Zohra orchestra, an ensemble of 35 women, in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2016. The Taliban introduced severe restrictions on people playing musical instruments.</span><span>Photograph: Reuters/Alamy</span>
Ahmad Sarmast speaking to members of the Zohra orchestra, an ensemble of 35 women, in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2016. The Taliban introduced severe restrictions on people playing musical instruments.Photograph: Reuters/Alamy

The Home Office has been forced into a U-turn and has now granted visas to the Afghan youth orchestra for their tour of England, after its earlier refusal threw their planned tour into chaos days before it was due to begin.

The band of 47 exiled musicians aged between 14 and 22 had been working for months on their repertoire for the shows, which are due to start at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London on Thursday.

The Home Office had initially refused their visa applications but overturned the decision on Monday after public criticism.

The musicians are also booked to play in Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool.

Diana Johnson MP, the chair of the home affairs select committee, wrote on X: “Excellent news and glad the @ukhomeoffice have done the right thing. Thank you to everyone who made this happen.”

The orchestra’s director, Dr Ahmad Sarmast, said the group have performed freely in Switzerland, France, Italy and Germany among other countries since they were chased out of their home country by the Taliban. Sarmast had described the Home Office’s initial decision as “heart-breaking”.

One of their most recent concerts was at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Among those helping them get out of Kabul were the international classical music stars Daniel Barenboim and Yo-Yo Ma.

After fleeing to Qatar from their home country when the Taliban retook power in 2021, the orchestra is now based in Portugal, where the players were granted immigration rights and are in education at Portuguese music schools, according to Sarmast.

He said the Home Office had initially told them it was not convinced by the information the orchestra provided about the status of the students, saying it was vague.

Speaking to the Guardian before the Home Office’s U-turn, Sarmast said: “The group has been denied visas for entry to the UK to complete this wonderful tour called Breaking the Silence.

“We have played all over the world since we left [Afghanistan] but we never faced this.”

The orchestra said the refusal was a “significant blow” that “deprived these young musicians an opportunity to raise awareness through music about the gender apartheid against Afghan women and denial of cultural rights of the Afghan people by the Taliban”.

The orchestra is part of the Afghanistan National Institute of Music (ANIM), which was established in 2010. When the Taliban retook power its campus in Kabul was seized as a command centre, its bank accounts were frozen, its offices ransacked and its instruments left abandoned.

Last summer the Taliban shared a picture of officials presiding over a bonfire of musical instruments and equipment. Playing and listening to music is heavily restricted under the regime.

In 2014 the ANIM symphony orchestra was performing at the French cultural centre in Kabul when a bomb ripped through the venue. Sarmast was knocked unconscious, both eardrums were perforated leaving him deaf, and he received serious shrapnel injuries. After months of treatment in Australia, he recovered his hearing.

“The main purpose of the orchestra is not only to share Afghan music in exile while it is banned and suppressed [under the Taliban] but to achieve cultural diplomacy – people to people – across the world,” he said.

“This denies our people the opportunity to let people in the UK know about what is happening in Afghanistan and share the beauty of Afghan music.”

The orchestra had prepared a repertoire of Afghan, south Asian and western classical music to perform at the Southbank Centre in London, the Tung auditorium in Liverpool, Stoller Hall in Manchester and at Birmingham Town Hall.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “Musicians and performers are a valued and important part of UK culture.

“Applications have to be considered on their individual merits in accordance with the immigration rules with the responsibility on applicants to demonstrate they meet these rules.”